Does multicultural arts benefit people of colour?


A few weeks ago ArtsHub published a criticism of Parramasala, a South Asian arts festival in Sydney, by Gary Paramanathan, a Tamil-Australian filmmaker and Director of Colourfest Film Festival. Paramanathan says:

I remember three years ago when Parramasala was first conceived, my friends, colleagues and I were ecstatic. Here was an acknowledgement of the diversity of Sydney, the burgeoning Indian and South Asian community, and the possibilities for art-making and dialogue. We saw an opportunity to contribute artistically to the cultural landscape of our home.

Our excitement quickly deflated when we saw the festival staff list; an overwhelmingly non-South Asian collective, with no senior South Asian staff. To his credit, the Festival Director met with a number of South Asian artists and arts workers, including myself. We provided copious amount of advice and introduced local contacts. We shared everything from the importance of incorporating the minor South Asian communities in the festival, such as the Sinhalese, to the importance of free and engaging public events. All advice was taken and some of it was implemented. Then it hit me – If they are coming to us for advice, then why don’t we hold these positions ourselves? Why are we not steering the festival? Why are we always the community consultants instead of the cultural programmers?

Not as Asian as it sounds‘, ArtsHub, 8 November 2012 [emphasis mine]

This perspective is something I’ve been hungering to hear, and I think it’s incredibly brave of Paramanathan to write this as someone who is engaged with the multicultural arts sector. He’s already been attacked for it, as were Candy B and Busty Beats when they discussed the whiteness of the hip-hop scene on Twitter. I’ve yet to hear white people in the arts respond positively to the notion that sometimes the most powerful contribution they could make is to step back.

My partner was telling me about a project launch recently. I wasn’t very interested and he said “I thought you’d be into it, because it’s people of colour, and performance, and solidarity”. And I was like, what, how did you get the idea I’d be into that? What I’m into is people of colour artists and performers self-organising, producing and having full creative control. In this particular case we couldn’t actually establish if the event was POC-run or not, but that’s not the point. There is nothing inherently revolutionary about people of colour performers; so many white supremacist societies applauded people of colour entertainers while excluding POC from all positions of power. And now multicultural arts maintains basically the same power relations while (explicitly or implicitly) purporting to benefit people of colour. I can definitely attest that being on a stage doesn’t always mean having a platform and sometimes performance is hugely disempowering. As I wrote for Overland recently, “too often marginalised people are invited to share their stories as illustration for someone else’s opinion.” I’m not interested in being an informant or a performer, I want real authorship.

Earlier this year, my performance troupe, the Ladies of Colour Agency (LOCA), was invited to speak on a panel at a community arts1 forum along with members of Flemington Theatre Group (a largely African-Australian youth theatre group) and Crooked Rib (a Muslim women arts collective). I found the other speakers on our panel articulate and inspiring, but I was struck by how irrelevant most of the program was for “community artists” (a term I would not choose for myself). The day was much more geared towards professionals working in the arts and community sector, in various roles, most of whom weren’t part of the communities they were trying to engage. I felt I shared few of their motivations, issues, frustrations and objectives.

The audience was quite rigorous in interrogating how we represented our communities as artists of “culturally diverse” backgrounds but, I felt, much less rigorous in considering the accountability of a professionalised multicultural arts sector to various communities. I found this one-sided demand of accountability particularly perplexing given that LOCA has never received funding on the basis of our cultural backgrounds. Some audience members could not comprehend how we could speak for ourselves as women of colour without claiming to represent all women of colour – it seemed they expected either a race-evasive individualism, or a structural relationship to our cultural communities. I felt we would have been considered more legitimate as a group who had come together by answering a call-out for participants from a multicultural arts project officer, rather than as individual women of colour who met through our personal networks, discovered a political affinity with each other, and developed an artistic project together. To me such thinking clearly privileges art that arises out of engagement with government arts bureaucracy, and has nothing at all to do with community accountability. When I hear about all the frustrating, demeaning and suppressing experiences artists have had with various organisations or funding bodies, I feel we have gained so much more than we might have lost by not engaging too much with the multicultural arts sector.

Quite a few of the questions and discussion throughout the day were about how to engage (unruly) community participants, who were primarily school-aged children and teenagers. I was confused at how these arts workers could be surprised that they had trouble engaging participants, when these kids had no role in determining the shape of the project, no prior experience or interest in the art form, and often no interest in a future arts career. Renoriginal has written about hip-hop workshops exploiting Indigenous kids and some of those issues definitely apply to arts projects targeting immigrant people of colour too. For some projects the purpose seems more to “keep kids off the streets” rather than enhance creativity, representation, equality or whatever else. Increasingly I have come to suspect that the multicultural arts sector prefers to work with children because the age disparity between unpaid participant and professional arts worker excuses and conceals the unequal power relations. You wouldn’t be able to get away with as much shit, I imagine, when working with adult POC artists who have experience, proven skills, a sense of their rights, and a clear vision for what they want to create. Apparently working with kids means you don’t have to question why you have that job.

Anyway, Parramasala Artistic Director Philip Rolfe has written a response here which pretty much doesn’t actually address any of the issues but instead personally attacks Paramanathan, dissing him for not attending the festival in earlier years, and getting a complimentary ticket for a film screening at this year’s festival. Paramanathan points out that he was given a comp because he supported the production of the film in question and goes on to say: “the filmmaker had limited comp tickets courtesy of the festival, did not receive any proceeds from the screening and had no financial support in the production of the film. Knowing all this, it saddens me you’d try to claim this as your big success.” Wow, so this is how the festival benefits South Asian artists?

Rolfe also defends Parramasala’s hiring, saying the non-South Asian staff are “professional and doing a great job” I don’t think anyone was questioning their professionalism, but I want to add here that the community arts sector’s definition of professionalism can be antithetical to community self-determination because it privileges institutionalised interactions with bureaucratically-defined cultural communities rather than organic and personal connections between individuals from various backgrounds. A naïve sense of professionalism finds individuals external to a community to be neutral, independent and altruistic while those who seek rights and resources for their own communities appear improperly invested, as they stand to benefit (Rolfe calls Paramanathan “self-serving”).

We need to go beyond “nothing about us without us” because the white-dominated multicultural arts sector has shown it has endless strategies for conditional inclusion and control. We need to ask how is it for us, when it’s not by us? What knowledge or skill are these administrators, directors, programmers and bureaucrats presuming that no one in x community has? And if it’s true that no one in x community has those skills, what are people doing to change that, to ensure that the next person in their position will be someone from that community?2 Basically if you’re not part of the community you’re supposedly working for, you should be working to make yourself professionally obsolete but I don’t see anyone doing that, even among people who do profess a belief in self-determination and changing power relations. Other arts workers have no critique of inequity and marginalisation at all – they talk about multiculturalism in terms of “diversity”. “Diversity”, I think, usually translates to marginalised people doing shit for free for the pleasure, interest and entertainment of majoritised audiences. This rhetoric of diversity eclipses and evades issues of equity, representation, community empowerment and self-determination. It’s time the community arts sector became accountable to the communities it’s supposed to benefit.


1. “Community arts” seemed to be used a synonym for “multicultural arts” as all the communities in question were ethno-cultural, linguistic or national communities, not, say, LGBTIQ community or Deaf community or various other communities that might have their own artistic culture. The fact that race, ethnicity, culture, language and nationality are collapsed in this jargon compounds these problems and creates additional confusion as bureaucratic definitions don’t match up with each other, or with public expectation. For example, in a joint project between Victoria University and the Centre for Multicultural Youth (CMY), an Anglo-New Zealander who self-identified as culturally diverse was accepted as a participant, informed by the project worker’s own status as a (white) immigrant American-Australian who considers herself significantly culturally diverse from Australians (p27). The participant was included in the data for the university, but not the report for CMY, due to varying definitions.

2. There are many possible strategies and tactics here, but I was impressed to hear Kate Larsen, the CEO of Arts Access Australia, the peak national body for arts and disability, announce her intended resignation at the start of 2012 because she thought the position should be held by a person with a disability. She put a succession plan in place and a couple of months ago a new CEO, Emma Bennison, was appointed.

Jinghua Qian

Author: Jinghua Qian

Jinghua Qian is a Shanghai-born cultural commentator living in Boonwurrung and Wurundjeri country. Eir work focuses on marginalisation and resistance, and spans verse, prose, performance and broadcast. Jinghua has written for Overland, Sydney Morning Herald, and SBS, performed at Melbourne Writers Festival and The Famous Spiegeltent, and presented multilingual queer programming for 3CR Community Radio.

2 thoughts on “Does multicultural arts benefit people of colour?”

  1. Awesome post. It’s tough, cos when there is the opportunity to take up the higher tiered positions there’s the problem of becoming the token PoC who is forced to speak for all, and the organisation pats themselves on the back for having a PoC on board. There is no doubt that PoC’s can and should hold these positions, but at the same time, I myself have felt and could see how others would feel inclined not to, and decide to operate autonomously instead.

    The exploitation of children in these programs to “keep them off the streets” rather than actually foster creativity really rings true for me, I have been involved with programs such as these in the past and it’s kind of heartbreaking. Like, give the kids some credit, they can see through this shit. I once almost applied for a creative arts outlet program called project “harvey” or something whose acronym (which was never elaborated on in the application) stood for something like project high risk, extremist violent youth (read: young muslim men who are new to our community and need to be monitored). I was super keen cos it was an amazing salary, good hours and working with my community. After doing some digging though, I realised that the funding for this “creative arts” program actually came under terrorist prevention and this was the sole reason the salary was so high. So like message to us arabs: Oh yeah, we’ll fund your creative pursuits, so long as it stops you from being terrorists, which, we’ve decided is the only other thing you are capable of. Nice one Melbourne.

    Anyway, those are my two cents. Thanks for the post.

  2. Yeah gosh, a Muslim youth worker was telling me recently about all that anti-terrorism funding too, and how it causes tensions with other ethnic communities who aren’t getting that money. So messed up. I can’t believe they don’t have to disclose that to participants! You’d think that these projects (especially ones involving children) should have to pass some kind of ethics board. Was there a criteria for participants being identified as “at-risk” or did they just assume all newly arrived Muslim men were likely to become terrorists?

    That makes me think of an anecdote from Toure’s book where an interviewer asked a Black (American) artist how his parents felt about him being an artist. I can’t remember the details but he said something like, well I had a pretty average middle-class upbringing but even though Mum’s a lawyer, Dad’s an accountant and my brother’s a doctor, they were pretty cool with me taking a more unconventional path cos both my parents were interested and involved in the arts while they were at grad school and our household always valued cultural interests. And the interviewer responded with something like “they must be glad you’re not a drug dealer”.

    Anyway, like you I’ve mainly chosen to operate autonomously, but there’s no shortage of people of colour who do want to work with or within these organisations. Tokenism is definitely an issue but I think there are strategies for addressing that. If it were an organisational goal to transition to greater community representation, it wouldn’t be a question of individual staffing decisions. It could mean quotas on boards, creating clear pathways for community consultants and volunteers to become programming staff, paid consultant positions as Bree suggested, having more equal partnerships with community organisations, developing projects with community artists rather than just signing them for an event, and integrating community accountability into objectives and evaluations. I expect there’s a lot to be learned from the approaches of Indigenous groups, Deaf/disabled groups and immigrant groups abroad in this regard?

Your thoughts?